Memoirs of a Footballing Nomad: Vietnam Tour of Footy 1991

 

“Lads, it’s Vietnam, what could go wrong?”

It was a Tuesday night, early 1991, post-training, and we were enjoying a beer around the Manila Nomads’ pitch-side bar. John Spurr, of the Asian Development Bank, was trying to sell us his proposed football tour of Vietnam, which, at the time, was one of his spheres of influence. Nomads F.C. was not new to overseas tours, regularly visiting SE Asian neighbours such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Thailand, as well as arranging a match featuring UK based members in Southend. For most of our players, however, Vietnam was still a bit of an unknown quantity; best remembered through movies such as The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Apocalypse Now (ironically filmed in the Philippines). I was probably, apart from John, the only one who had visited the country, two years previously.

Vietnam, isolated for so long after bitter years of conflict, was opening up again and John assured us we would be breaking new ground; football pioneers – the first foreign touring football team to play there since the war, he claimed. We would be welcomed with open arms.

Had we bothered to do a bit of background research, we may not have been so easily persuaded.

In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, and bankrolled by their oil tycoon owner, US side Dallas Tornado went on a pre-season world tour. For some inexplicable reason, they decided part of it should take place in Vietnam. They also decided that they should wear cowboy hats for the entire trip – as an extension of US goodwill, or something. It turned out to be anything but.

After relatively peaceful opening games in Spain, Morocco and Turkey, the next match was to take place in Cyprus, though fate would rear its head before then. After a day sightseeing at the Acropolis, the team was delayed heading to the airport and missed their flight from Athens to Nicosia by half an hour. Lucky them. Flight BEA CY284 exploded at 29,000ft after a bomb was detonated under a seat, killing 63 people. Its intended target, the Greek army general Georgios Grivas, had also missed the flight, and later travelled to Nicosia on the same plane as the Tornado team.

Their later match against Singapore FC descended into a full-scale riot, with the hostile crowd screaming, “Yankee Imperialists’; one player was attacked with a corner flag and the team had to be escorted from the pitch to seek sanctuary in the dressing room for the next two hours. Sounds familiarly like errant referees at PAT Stadium. The Tornado actually visited Manila, beating a select XI 7-0 (any Nomads, one wonders?) and then losing to the National Team.

They played two matches against Vietnamese select sides in Saigon, drawing 1-1 and 2-2. Security was strict and the team managed to survive both games unscathed. A few weeks later, though probably not in response to their tour, the Tet Offensive began. Needless to say, the team hadn’t stayed on. The battered and bruised Tornados finally returned home, shell-shocked, to finish their inaugural NASL season rock bottom with a goal difference of -81.

For the full story of this incredible tour, read the article below.
https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2014/jan/09/forgotten-story-of-dallas-tornado

As for our particular touring team, Manila Nomads were formed in 1914 and its football section is the oldest competitive football team in the Philippines, a sport ranked well behind basketball, boxing and cock-fighting in the eyes of its sporting fandom. At the time of the tour we had a fairly decent team having in recent years, won, amongst others, the Philippine FA Cup, defeating Philippine Airlines, who were able to boast a number of internationals in their ranks, in the Final.

Some of us had played at a reasonable level; my own claim to fame being an FA Cup first qualifying round for Stratford-on-Avon Town against Burton Albion, at the time managed by former Forest and Man Utd player Ian Storey-Moore, and now in English League 1. It was, however, a game that passed most of us by, losing 1-0 in a ‘backs to the wall’, rearguard, defensive action.

But, on this very special tour, we also had many players who were just coming along for the ‘craic’. Nomads’ tours, it was reputed, were notorious for their extravagant hedonism. And this one was to be a marathon – 3 games in 8 days. Faced with this potentially grueling programme, both on and off the pitch, it was mostly single lads who made up the initial party; the married boys would join us after the first game. John had promised us some Vietnamese stand-ins and they were to prove invaluable.

Nomads never got round to donning cowboy hats but our choice of kit may have had some unfortunate repercussions. Kevin Moylan, our captain, worked for Umbro and persuaded us to forgo our usual Nomads’ green and white hoops to wear the full England strip of the time, produced by his company. This, we all feared, might induce in the Vietnamese the impression that we could actually be quite good, even the England team themselves, perhaps. To allay this impression, Kevin also cunningly equipped us with the Scottish team tracksuits, also produced by Umbro, to wear on the way to the match, thus immediately reducing any expectations.

 

 

It wasn’t to work. On our approach to the Vung Tau stadium for our first game, we were greeted by an incredible sight. Thousands of parked bicycles encircled the ground, rather resembling a Raleigh Factory holding yard. The stadium itself was full already: 5,000 plus Vietnamese eager to greet, no doubt, Paul Gascoigne, Bryan Robson and Gary Linekar; I think they would even have been happy with Ally McCoist. Instead, they got the still, slightly hung-over Manila Nomads, but I don’t think they really cared – we were putting Vietnam on the football map again. And, thankfully, for this game we were playing in our regular green.

Our hosts weren’t skimping on ceremony, either. Both teams were lined up on the half-way line; we were now up to a full starting eleven thanks to the generous loan of local players, Lan, Tran and Van. A team of bewildered schoolgirls (and one boy), dressed in what looked like girl-guide outfits topped with pale blue airline hostess caps, handed out flowers. We stood respectfully to attention as they played the Vietnamese national anthem, before placing hands on hearts to belt out, ‘God Save the Queen’. It is at this point that proceedings took on a bizarre and highly amusing twist. Unable to produce this rousing tribute to our beloved monarch, the ‘DJ’ stuck on the only record they had in English at the time: Boney M’s, ‘Ra-Ra-Rasputin’. I kid you not – I couldn’t make this stuff up. Some of us knew the words and politely joined in, not wishing to see our hosts lose face. It’s quite catchy actually, although, at the time, I couldn’t quite see it replacing ‘Abide With Me’. Needless to say, they didn’t play all of it.

 

 

It was while both anthems were being played that we got a chance to run an eye over our Vietnamese opponents. It was not an encouraging sight. They were young, lean and, it appeared, impressively fit. We would rather have been facing Boney M. Luckily, the pitch, was in a state of patchy, ill repair, which we hoped might be a great leveler. It was not to be. Vung Tau FC played with pace, control and were soon a goal up. It was at this point that we discovered, quite by chance, a potential secret weapon.

John Kelly, our stocky midfielder, launched himself into a perfect sliding tackle by the touchline. There was a stunned moment of silence from the crowd, before all 5000 erupted, as one, into gales of laughter. And it wasn’t mocking laughter, either – it was a joyful, ‘did you see that?’ kind of laughter. Moments later, full back Danny McAtamney slid in again with the same, hilarious effect. And so it went on. Maybe slide tackles weren’t in vogue in post-war Vietnam. At one point, we considered slide-tackling each other to render the crowd completely senseless, but this would have descended the game into farce and we were here as ambassadors, after all.

 

 

However, this collective mirth was clearly having a distracting effect on the home team and for a brief period we actually put a few passes together. Well, in truth, Lan, Tran and Van put a few passes together as they were our other secret weapon. When we needed a breather, one, or all of them would be our escape route. In the end, Vung Tau took pity on us and kept the defeat to a respectable 4-2; one of our goals scored by Lan (or Tran or Van); the other a thrice taken penalty by captain Kevin – they were obviously of a mind that he would eventually score if he had enough goes at it.

That evening, the local Communist party hosted a lavish post-match reception. Their leader made a stirring speech in Vietnamese and Kevin responded in English, remembering not to, ‘mention the war’. He did however rather mix up his conflicts by promising, in true General Macarthur style, “We shall return”.

We had been puzzled at the beginning of the evening by the abundance of chairs lining the tables for our relatively small squad. After taking our seats, we were advised to shift around and leave a chair free next to each of us. As Kevin closed his speech and sat down, the Vietnamese MC clapped his hands, a door opened, and, with a susurrative swish of a dozen Ao Dais, the secret of the empty chairs was revealed.

And with that, dear reader, we will draw a veil on Vung Tau.

Our next game was at the Saigon National Stadium against, ironically enough, Saigon Port Authority, who were the current Vietnamese League Leaders and a considerable upgrade on Vung Tau FC. However, we had been strengthened by the arrival of the rest of the squad, although one of our married members saw his ticket mysteriously ‘disappear’ before departure and was forced to buy a replacement. Our two late, albeit assisted goals, in Vung Tau, had also given us some hope. And, they had ‘God Save the Queen’.

It’s the hope that kills. The Port Authority were quick, skillful but, thankfully, largely humanitarian. News must have travelled fast from Vung Tau because, after an initial two goal burst, they played the game at a leisurely pace, doing just enough to ensure victory without humiliation. The passionate, 10,000 crowd were equally respectful, clapping politely in all the right places, even applauding our sliding tackles! The final score was 4-1 but this time there was to be no post-match reception, although we did get some rousing cheers from the crowd on our, ‘lap of honour’.

 

 

We had two or three days to kill before our final game in Long Anh, so we spent it doing what grown men do when they aren’t properly supervised: terrorizing the citizens with bicycle rickshaw races through the streets of Saigon, firing AK 47’s at a nearby shooting range (being a pacifist I didn’t go) and finding increasingly creative ways of utilizing our dong. Our favourite watering place was a little hole in the wall bar which we christened, ‘Eddie’s Garage’, on account of there always being a fleet of motorbikes parked outside.

By the time we got to Long Anh, the local interest in us had died down and our dismal 3-1 defeat was watched by just a one-legged veteran and his dog. At one point we did consider inviting them to play but they may have done a better job and we had been humiliated enough already. At least we had a 100% record!

As Nomads’ tours go, and there were many, this one was truly memorable and I still have the photograph album I produced for the tour members to keep as a souvenir. The Vietnamese were fantastically warm and friendly hosts and my many subsequent return visits to various parts of the country have only reinforced that opinion. I actually went back there twice on football tours in subsequent years, once with the British Club, Bangkok, and then a return visit with Nomads, featuring five of the original 1991 tourists.

And I can never listen to Boney M without my hand on my heart and a smile on my face.

 

Peter Hockley

Peter Hockley

Peter 'Hockers' Hockley is currently the School Librarian at St Andrews International School, Sathorn and has lived in Thailand since 1992. He has followed Port home and away since 2010, with unbridled devotion and his famous woolly hat. He is a co-founder member of the Sivakorn (is a football genius) Appreciation Society (SAS). At present, the Society boasts a membership of, well, two. Peter has written travel articles for The Nation and Sawaddi magazine, and once had a letter published in Charles Buchan's Football Monthly which won him 5 guineas.

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